Academic journal article Magistra

The Heart of St. Zélie Martin, Mother of the Little Flower

Academic journal article Magistra

The Heart of St. Zélie Martin, Mother of the Little Flower

Article excerpt

On October 18, 2015, Pope Francis, in raising Sts. Louis and Zélie Martin to the altar, formally canonized the first married couple in the Church's history.1 Although quite a bit may be learned about Mr. Martin firsthand from Thérese's autobiography, Story of a Soul, Therese was only four years old when her mother died, and thus had to form most of the recollection of her mother from the hearsay of others. For this reason, Louis is generally the better known of the two saints. In order to draw a spiritual vignette of St. Zélie, who was a remarkable woman and saint in her own right, and who spent her life raising a saintly family, it is necessary to turn to other sources, and the best record available is her own letters in which she reveals her personality, her struggles, and her faith.

Saint Zélie Martin had a hard life, and she would have been the first to agree. Her childhood was not a happy one. Her mother was severe, preferring to give her affection to Zélie's sister Elise instead. When Zélie attempted to join the Congregation of the Daughters of Charity, she was refused entrance without a reason being given. Following her marriage to St. Louis Martin her family life, though certainly full of joys and consolations, was also overshadowed by the numerous deaths of her children, including one case in which her daughter was literally starved to death through neglect at the hand of her wet-/ nurse. Another cross St. Zélie had to bear was the wayward and eccentric behavior of her third daughter Léonie, who caused her mother endless grief, could not even be placed at a boarding school due to her misbehavior, and who, it was later discovered, was being emotionally and physically abused by the live-in maid.

Above all, Zélie's life was burdened with the endless work of her Alençon lace-making business, which consumed her sometimes from morning till night, with no rest. No, it was not a happy life, and her attitude of often expecting the worst, or of finding trials to be easier to handle than joys, likely arises from her early experiences of disappointment. Finally, at the age of only 45, Zélie was to succumb to breast cancer, leaving behind five daughters, all under 18 years of age, and the youngest (St. Thérese of Lisieux) only four years old.

St. Zélie was well aware that life is a "vale of tears" and, in her letters, expresses a certain indifference to death, and very little expectation that life would ever improve for the better. One might even fault her for such a gloomy disposition if it had not been balanced by a firm faith that the final destination is eternal happiness in heaven with God. She always had her mind and soul firmly fixed on this reality, thus preventing her from lapsing into despair or depression. True, there were certain moments when death troubled her, or when she found life sweet and full of promise, but even then she had a foreboding that trouble was on the horizon.

Her best moments came when she doted on her little children whom she loved immensely. She well understood how much her children needed her. One of the most painful dramas to watch unfold is at the end of her life, when her cancer had finally metastasized and was quickly spreading throughout her entire body. It was precisely at this moment that she finds a new will to live. She discovers the abuse of her daughter Léonie and wants to heal her. But it is also at that moment that her life is quickly ebbing away. The work of raising her troubled daughter would have to be left to others.

But God's plans are not our plans, and although a merely worldly vision might complain about a great injustice on God's part for treating a saint so badly, the eyes of faith see a beautiful flife completely abandoned to His holy will, a masterpiece of family life in which three members have already been canonized and another (ironically the troubled child Léonie) is currently being considered for canonization. And of course, from this gloom and hardship comes forth the pearl in the crown of the Martin family, the greatest saint of modern times, St. …

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